The GOP: A Party Increasingly at Odds With Itself

by Stuart Rothenberg March 22, 2013 · 10:41 AM EDT

“I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat,” humorist Will Rogers said many years ago. But if Rogers were alive today, he’d undoubtedly see his party as a model of organization and unity when compared to the GOP.

The Republican Party continues to fracture more seriously than I expected following last year’s re-election of President Barack Obama.

Instead of uniting the GOP’s various constituencies against the president’s agenda, Obama’s re-election seems to have encouraged Republicans to spend much of their time harping on their internal disagreements and fighting over how the party should be positioned for 2016 and beyond.

Everyone — from party insiders to journalists to those at the grass roots — has noticed the GOP’s problems, and everyone has solutions, from revising party positions on immigration and same-sex marriage to moving away from international commitments to electing more conservatives who will refuse to compromise on conservative principles.

Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee entered the discussion with a lengthy report that dealt with everything from message to campaign mechanics and the presidential nominating process.

While many of the suggestions contained in the Growth & Opportunity Project report would improve the party’s prospects, the nature of our political system makes it difficult for the RNC to remake the party, as former RNC Chairman Ray Bliss did in the mid-1960s, after Barry Goldwater’s defeat.

The RNC can improve its prospects by reaching out to Hispanics, Asian-Americans and younger voters. It can increase its relevance by emphasizing voter registration, micro-targeting and data collection, and by trying to woo college students and those becoming U.S. citizens. And it can promote young women and people of color to change the perception of the Republican Party primarily as the party of old white guys.

But while the report proposes a big tent strategy, others in the party — Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth, Sean Hannity, Tea Party Express and Jim DeMint — have a different agenda. Bliss did not have to deal with similar non-party groups 50 years ago, and their existence today undercuts the authority of the national party.

Allies of Ron Paul and “movement conservatives” have already criticized the RNC report, portraying it as little more than the establishment’s attempt to remake the party in the image of the Democratic Party.

Because the RNC cannot dictate message or mechanics the way it once could, it is unclear how much impact the Growth & Opportunity Project report will have. That doesn’t mean that all of the report’s proposals will be ignored or that the national party is powerless. But it does cast doubt on whether the report’s call for a big tent party will be respected.

But if Republicans have a long-term problem that requires major changes in message and organization, the party has equally big near-term problems.

I recently asked a smart veteran Republican pollster what his party could do to turn things around in the near future. His response what refreshingly honest: Nothing. The Republican brand will improve, he continued, only when the president screws up.

Passing an immigration bill might remove an issue that has made it difficult for Republicans to talk with Hispanics about other issues, but it won’t immediately make those voters more inclined to see themselves as Republicans, or to appreciate the ways in which the GOP’s views on a range of issues reflects their own values, priorities and views.

Since the GOP brand is damaged, it has little credibility with certain voters. And because politics is invariably in the eye of the beholder, voters who don’t even consider listening to the GOP will have to become receptive to Republican arguments before they are willing to consider voting for Republican candidates.

But that isn’t likely to happen until those voters grow disillusioned with the Democrats. That disillusionment could come next week, next year or in 10 years, depending on events and circumstances. But voters won’t listen to the recalibrated Republican message — or even new GOP messengers — until they are looking for something new.

With Republicans increasingly split on policy and strategy — hardly a recipe for political success in 2014 or 2016 — GOP grass-roots activists, party leaders and “outside” groups still need to find a compelling case for swing voters and weak Democrats to reassess their assumptions about the two parties. For now, only the president and congressional Democrats can give them that.